Thursday, January 8, 2015

Michele Hathaway on the Power of Diverse Historical Fiction

When I was in elementary school, not long after Gutenberg invented the press, I discovered a tatty set of historical fiction biographies in my school library. Cloth-bound, comfortably worn, and perfumed with old book scent, I loved them, but not for any of these reasons. I loved them because they were good stories. The interesting thing is, the two I remember best were about Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. To this day, they are my heroes.

Both were former slaves who overcame formidable barriers of poverty and prejudice to become educated men. They translated their genius into a means to help not only their fellow liberated slaves but all those around them. Carver invented 100 products for peanuts besides peanut butter, for goodness sake. Even kids with peanut allergies have got to be impressed with that.

Now, I’m a White girl, an Anglo-Saxon-Celtic mix, and, as I mentioned, I stumbled upon these books not long after humankind discovered fire. Well, okay, by that time, Rosa Parks had refused to go to the back of the bus and Armstrong was about to take his first step on the moon, but the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign was not even a twinkle in an author’s eye. And my heroes were Black men.

That is the power of historical fiction.

Even small libraries harbor great vehicles to colorblindness on their shelves. In the case of George Washington Carver, there is likely enough material available in most libraries, and certainly on the Internet, to forge an extensive and fantastic unit study. I’m certain many of you already have done so.

We are not limited to historical fiction biographies, either. Historical fiction such as Laurence Yep's Hiroshima (Scholastic, 1995), The Girls of Gettysburg, by Bobbi Miller (Holiday House, 2014), and Joseph Bruchac's Code Talker: a novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two (Dial, 2005) offer strong fictional characters set in historic periods and events.

Unfortunately, there are still relatively few diverse historical fiction books for children. Nafiza, on "The Book Wars" blog, points out the importance of historical fiction and the lack of diversity within the genre: 
George Washington Carver
by  Betsy Graves Reyneau
“Children”, she says, “assimilate culture when they are young, they learn the ways of being and they learn to reflect the thoughts of their parents and other family members. If we as educators, librarians, siblings and parents were to ensure that our children grow up learning not just their own history but the histories of different people, no matter the depth, I think the world would be a much better place.”
Offer children good stories about people who overcome the odds, such as slavery, prejudice, poverty, and bullying. Present them with children who are smart, work hard, can do amazing things like grow up to make peanut butter out of peanuts, and you hand them the tools to make this world a much better place.

How about you? What historical fiction books inspired you when you were young? Did any of them feature characters from typically underrepresented people groups? In future posts, I’ll explore the ingredients of good diverse historical fiction.

Michele Hathaway is a writer and freelance editor. She has an M. A. in Social Anthropology and has worked in libraries in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She writes stories set in culturally diverse, historical and contemporary periods.


  1. Historical fiction remains one of my favorite genres for kids and adults. I learned so much about local history when reading through The Terrible Wave with my eldest homeschooler years ago. Linda Sue Park's books about Korea and Sudan are some of the finest works of literature on the market. My own late adolescent reading had me fascinated with the Salem Witch Trials including a stunning fictional biography of Tituba I discovered as an adult. Also as an adult, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (definitely not for the MG set!) brought that world to life for me. Historical fiction is a powerful tool for the imagination. Thanks for a great blog post!

    1. Dear Free Range Anglican, thank you for mentioning some great books; I often think of Linda Sue Park and historical fiction in the same breath. I'll have to check some of these other books as well. I'm glad you liked the post!

  2. I guess I'm older than dirt because as a child, I don't even remember seeing the books you mentioned. I will certainly be interested in your thoughts on what makes a good diverse historical fiction story.

    1. Dear Mary, alas, not all libraries hold the same jewels.